Kamala Harris’s charmed political life is about to face its biggest test

Kamala Harris’s charmed political life is about to face its biggest test

After announcing her intention to run for president last week, California Sen. Kamala Harris traveled to her hometown of Oakland Sunday to launch her

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After announcing her intention to run for president last week, California Sen. Kamala Harris traveled to her hometown of Oakland Sunday to launch her campaign at a high-profile rally before a crowd of nearly 20,000.

Surprisingly, precisely zero people were surprised.

Harris, 54, is only two years into her freshman term as a U.S. senator. She represents one of the most dependably Democratic states in the nation. Previously she served as California’s attorney general for six years, and San Francisco’s district attorney for seven years before that.

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That’s hardly a flimsy résumé. But it’s also not the sort of résumé that, by itself, tends to gets you talked about as one of your party’s most inevitable presidential prospects, or catapults you into the ranks of “frontrunners” the moment you declare.

Only two past presidents — Martin Van Buren and Bill Clinton — served as attorney general before ascending to the Oval Office. And there’s only one senator-turned-president in U.S. history who spent so little time in the world’s greatest deliberative body before launching a White House bid: Barack Obama.

Harris, meanwhile, has been touted as a potential president for years — even before she joined the Senate.

The question is why. Looking back at how the “Kamala for commander in chief” buzz built over time is instructive. In part that’s because it reveals how much of a trailblazer she’s been in every stage of her career — and how that trailblazer status has, in turn, propelled her into the national spotlight.

“When Harris first ran for statewide office, the nation and, more specifically, the Democratic Party had begun to rethink the boundaries for minority and female candidates,” says Dan Schnur, a former spokesman for John McCain and recent director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “Right after a primary in which voters chose between a minority candidate [Obama] and female candidate [Hillary Clinton], Harris emerged on the landscape of the biggest state in the country as both. Her demographic identity brought her a tremendous amount of attention at precisely the right moment in her party’s history.”

Yet this history also highlights the single biggest challenge facing Harris’s nascent campaign — the key factor that will determine if she catches fire or flames out. In a presidential slugfest, biography is a great starting point. But it can only take you so far.

For years, the excitement surrounding Harris has overshadowed whatever political skills she’s displayed on the campaign trail. Now those skills will be put to the test.

“Sen. Harris thrives off of doubters and skeptics,” says California Democratic consultant Brian Brokaw, who ran Harris’s 2010 and 2014 campaigns for state attorney general. “When her back has been against the wall — I have seen this time and again — it’s like fuel to her. People who think of her as lacking substance — as being all style or symbolism — couldn’t be more off the mark. And they do so at their own peril.”

Harris has never had trouble attracting national attention. In 2005, shortly after becoming DA, she appeared in a Newsweek story called “A New Team in Town” about the “women in charge of [San Francisco’s] safety”; the feature was part of a cover package on “How Women Lead.”

Newsweek didn’t proclaim Harris a possible president-in-waiting, but it wasn’t long before other outlets and observers did. “She’s a rising star and we hope to see her running for even bigger offices down the road,” an EMILY’s List spokeswoman told Politico in 2010, before Harris was elected as state attorney general. “That’s a characterization Harris’s campaign embraces,” the site added, quoting her consultant Ace Smith calling her “one of the potentially brightest rising stars in the Democratic Party” — while pointedly noting that Smith had “declin[ed] to speculate about her future beyond this election.”

The assumption, of course, was that Harris had a future beyond that election — and once she actually won statewide office, nobody ever declined to speculate again. Harris has “caught the attention of her party’s most powerful figures, some of whom view her as a rising star in the mold of Barack Obama,” Politico declared that December, naming her one of the top 10 “breakout stars” of 2010. “[She] has the unique opportunity to build a strong national political brand.”

The real turning point, however, came a few years later — and the Obama connection is key. The two had long been close. In 2007, Harris attended Obama’s presidential kickoff speech in Springfield, Ill.; that cycle, she wound up chairing his California campaign. Seeking to elevate Harris the way he’d been elevated nearly a decade earlier, the president later handpicked her to deliver a primetime address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. CNN’s John Berman was so “disarmed by Harris’s popularity,” according to the Sacramento Bee, that “he had difficulty introducing her before an interview on the convention floor.”

“I lost my train of thought,” Berman told his viewers, “because so many people are here getting their picture taken with her.”

“She’s definitely on the national radar,” Jessica Taylor of the Rothenberg Political Report said at the time. “Something like this will bring her higher visibility for her next office.”

The following April, Obama gave Harris yet another boost. At a ritzy fundraiser in Atherton, Calif., the president told a group of Democratic donors that in addition to being “brilliant,” “dedicated” and “tough,” Harris “also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country.” The president’s assessment struck a “wolfish,” if not outright sexist, note, but the ensuing publicity secured Harris’s spot on the national stage.

Soon, commentators were mentioning the Californian for every conceivable office: senator (to replace Barbara Boxer, if she were to retire); governor (to succeed Jerry Brown, if he were to pass on reelection); attorney general of the United States (after then-AG Eric Holder resigned); even Supreme Court justice (to fill either Stephen Breyer or Antonin Scalia’s seat).

But amid all the mentioning, the presidency was the most persistent theme. In 2012, National Journal named Harris one of its “up-and-comers” to watch in the 2016 presidential race. A year later, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza captured the conventional wisdom.

“There is a theory that Harris could make the big leap to run for president in 2016,” Cillizza wrote. “If former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick stay out of the race, Harris could well be the only woman and the only African American candidate in the field. … That’s a powerful set of distinguishing characteristics, particularly in a Democratic presidential primary fight.”

Publicly, Harris wasn’t buying into it.  The guessing game “drives me bananas,” she said at the time. “I’m only halfway through my first term as attorney general, and it’s a job I love.”

Everyone knows what happened next: Harris announced her Senate ambitions in 2015, then promptly locked up the big donors and big endorsements and steamrolled her only serious challenger, Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez, in both the Democratic primary and the top-two general-election runoff.

As usual, the immediate coverage focused as much on what Harris had just achieved as where she might go next — and since arriving in Washington, the freshman senator has methodically fulfilled those grand expectations, paving the way for this week’s announcement.

Source: Yahoo News

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